The OBE blog

A lot of what we do with our C-100 and C-200 decoders involves decoding MPEG-2 video which is still prevalent in spite of being over 25 years old. We're often also using professional profiles like 4:2:2 which hardware decoders on CPUs and GPUs can't cope with. Looking at the decode process in perf shows a slow IDCT written in MMX (yes, really!), so we sent one of engineers, James to make it faster and modernise the code. Here’s how he did it in his own words (be warned, it is about to get very technical!):

Week’s 7 and 8 have been merged (again) owing to various trips abroad. One highlight was being able to visit the Mobile TV Group UHD/HDR truck. This truck was doing Basketball for FOX Sports and we learnt how they are working on testing HDR for various broadcasters. We also show how UHD streams were managed and the challenges with cable overload and managing 2SI (sample interleave) vs quadrants.


In Week 8 we started testing SMPTE 2022-6 with our colleagues @skynewstech:


We’re learning a lot about how to deploy software 2022-6 streams ourselves in a multivendor environment. More on this at our NAB BEITC speech "Don’t Just Go IP, Go IT".

At Open Broadcast Systems, we have a lot of repetitive business processes that essentially involve the same simple tasks every day or every week. We like to follow the famous Japanese continuous improvement process of Kaizen, made famous by Toyota, where every employee from the factory floor worker to the CEO can suggest and enact improvements to their work to improve efficiency. But in the era of automation, we want to do more - we want to improve processes by several orders of magnitude and then have them done automatically. This lets us run with a much lower administrative headcount compared to similar companies, as well as move more quickly.

One of the hardest processes to improve was our ordering processes for Blackmagic cards. Owing to recent GBP currency fluctuations, our supply chain has had regular price changes, most of which we automatically calculate from USD or EUR and pull into spreadsheets.

However, all Blackmagic equipment from the UK distributor is priced using a master PDF price list pictured below:

It is, of course, easy for humans to read this datasheet but for a machine, it has a confusing mix of pictures, description, and a large number of subcategories of device. Note how there could be a single heading to list the subcategories or just a single device type. None of this is easy for a computer to understand.

Initially we tried basic PDF extraction tools like pdfextract but they struggled with the complex table structure. But then we found Tabula, software used by journalists to parse released documents. It was able to understand the document structure very well as we can see:

From there it was some very simple python scripting to extract prices and loading all this data into our supply chain spreadsheets. We can now run this as a batch job every day and have nicely updated prices.

We want to do this for as many business processes, from the simple to the complicated. However, we lack a lot of things to really make the most of automation:

  • • Banking APIs, we want to automate these processes. There’s lots of innovation in the consumer space here, but in the business world, we are still stuck with generating CSV files and all the problems that entail, and then manually uploading these
  • • Automated Language Processing in emails. The success of Google Inbox shows that it is possible to intelligently sort and suggest responses to emails. In our case, we get a lot of emails saying “Can I have a quote for X”. We’d like software that would understand this and create a quote (and send to a human to confirm). This is obviously a nontrivial problem (perhaps IBM Watson could solve it).

Most of this week involved visiting FOSDEM, the Free and Open Source European Developers Meeting, where we were organising the Open Media track in conjunction with colleagues from the EBU and OpenHeadend.

We had an all-hands company meeting in Brussels on the Friday hosted at the lovely Radisson Red Brussels complete with crocodile meat for lunch nearby. Interestingly, the hotel was solar powered from a Tesla PowerPack.


During the week, we spent a long time chasing and bisecting a Blackmagic playback bug on very long-running streams that occurred between two driver versions. We also started the number crunching to produce various reports. 

FOSDEM itself had many interesting speakers, but for us the highlight was Gerolf Ziegenhain from the DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung GmbH. This was an incredible insight into how DFS manages Linux and other software that is safety-of-life critical. You would (understandably) think this is a very bureaucratic process but the speaker was able to eloquently explain the mix between the business requirements and the heavy technical knowledge DFS has. For example, they desolder and replace diodes on NVIDIA Graphics cards to improve reliability. Yet at the same time, it takes years of testing to roll out a new software release.

The broadcast industry has a lot to learn from this, many still think that IT hardware can’t be used for mission-critical purposes, yet as I fly to my weekend break in Berlin, it is IT equipment keeping me safe in the skies: